Three local farmers have decided to drop an antitrust lawsuit against the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market Association to ensure they don’t bankrupt the association or pass higher prices onto consumers.
Santa Rita Flower Farms, Goleta’s Wellington Farm and DeyDey’s Best Beef Ever filed the suit in December 2012, alleging the association denied them equal access to markets that seemed to favor more out-of-town growers.
Last week, the growers decided individually and then collectively to dismiss the case for fear that the association would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the lawsuit, which would raise grower fees and then, ultimately, the cost of goods to farmers market-goers, according to Jeff Hendrickson, owner of Santa Rita Flower Farm in Lompoc.
The decision came nearly a week before the association was scheduled to argue in court why all charges should be dropped, due in no small part to finding out that the association doesn’t have antitrust insurance, Hendrickson said.
“We just wanted equal access,” said Hendrickson, who has been on the waiting list to sell in the Saturday Montecito market since 2005. “We wanted them to follow their own rules.”
Also named in the suit were association General Manager Sam Edelman, board of directors President Molly Gean and five other board members.
The association on Monday released a statement saying that members feel relief, and maintain that all allegations of antitrust conspiracy for personal benefit were “completely without grounds.”
According to the association, admission to market locations is a process based on California Department of Food and Agriculture regulations limiting redundancy and encouraging diversity of products, which translates into making decisions based on space availability and product need.
The statement explained that Santa Rita Flower Farm was not offered a spot in the Montecito market, but was given a seasonal space in the Saturday market because those markets could not support another grower selling the same products.
Gean said the suit has already harmed the association’s reputation and discouraged members from wanting board positions.
“The board members are all hardworking farmers who were duly elected by the full membership,” she said in the statement. “They volunteer many hours and much effort to keep the SBCFMA successful. No one took any actions for personal gain. There was no conspiracy of any kind.
“If they were that concerned about a victory by them being the end of the market, why didn’t they dismiss their case months ago? No, the real reason we think the case was dismissed is the plaintiffs and their lawyers gave up because the case lacked merit.”
Hendrickson, who sells at weekday markets in Santa Barbara, Goleta, Solvang and Carpinteria, said the plaintiffs had a strong case. He hopes to one day be off the waiting list in Montectio.
Wellington Farm owner Catherine Moss, a senior association member who has been on a waiting list for all local farmers markets since 2005, said the growers were trying to effect positive change, but not at the expense of others.
“They’re excluding local farmers,” said Moss, who previously sold jams and more at all local markets.
She and Dey Dey’s Best Beef Ever owners John de Bruin and Nadine de Bruin said they are unsure of their next course of action, since they’ve been applying for admission to no avail.